Locating the Anglo-Indian Self in Ruskin Bond: A Postcolonial Review

Locating the Anglo-Indian Self in Ruskin Bond: A Postcolonial Review

by Debashis Bandyopadhyay


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Ruskin Bond's life - and, for that matter, his semi-autobiographical works - are allegories of the colonial aftermath. His is an odd but exemplary attempt at absorption as a member of the Anglo-Indian ethnic minority, a community whose role in the shaping of the postcolonial Indian psyche has yet to be systematically analysed. This study explores the dialogue between the biographical and authorial selves of Ruskin Bond, whose subjectivity is informed by the fantasies of space and time.

Bond's experiences of socio-political discrimination underwrite his repressed concerns. He seeks to allay his anxieties through an attempt to signify defiance of the functional agencies of those parameters, which ironically become more active as he attempts a symptomatic mastery of their inductive agencies. Nevertheless, for a nostalgic writer the unconscious - which is shaped by the impressions of the experiences of negotiation between double inheritances - exerts a problematic yet discerning influence on Bond's literary self. This study offers a chronological reading of Bond's texts, seeking to bring out the constant presence of this repressed anxiety and the psychological compulsion to dramatize the Self-Other dynamics as a symptomatic method to acquire a conviction of the self.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789380601045
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 01/01/2011
Series: Anthem South Asian Studies
Edition description: First
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Debashis Bandyopadhyay is Associate Professor of English at Presidency University, Kolkata, where his research interests include ethnic and African American literature, 1950s British and American drama, psychoanalytic interpretation and fantasy narratives, and Shakespeare and the literary public.

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Locating the Anglo-Indian Self in Ruskin Bond

A Postcolonial Review

By Debashis Bandyopadhyay

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Debashis Bandyopadhyay
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-943-8



Ruskin Bond was born to a British father, Aubrey Alexander Bond, and a supposedly Anglo-Indian mother, Edith Dorothy, at Kasauli Military Hospital in Himachal Pradesh, India on 19 May 1934. It is useful to bear in mind from the outset that I will be working with Bond's own sense of the self rather than any objective truth about his lineage or descent. Whilst he is undoubtedly aware of his father's British heritage, his mother's lineage is far more mysterious, even to him. I will return to this matter in greater detail later. Before that, however, let me introduce the subject of the self/other dialectic – referred to in the title of this study – which seeks to deal with the author's anxieties of identity.

Bond's life (and, for that matter, his semi-autobiographical literature) is an allegory of the colonial aftermath. For him, India is a place in which, in his youthful days, he overcame daunting rejection in order to work out a congenial absorption. Suitable absorption accommodates both integral and differential styles of living. It caters to 'identity' formation in so far as the term refers to both similarities with and differences from others or 'the other'. His is an unusual but exemplary attempt at the absorption of a member of a minority ethnic community whose role in the shaping of the postcolonial Indian psyche is not seriously addressed elsewhere. This is an attempt to explore the dialogue between the biographical and authorial selves of the man whose subjectivity is informed by the fantasies of space and time. That is not to say, however, that I have set out to give a fully-fledged account of the author's actual life as it has developed to the present day. Professor Meena G. Khorana has done that for us in her book, The Life and Works of Ruskin Bond (2003) and so has Bond in his autobiographical works. I will be reading texts of Ruskin Bond, selected from across his writing career – for he is still writing – in an attempt to diagnose the Anglo-Indian author's psychic tensions in postcolonial India. I use the term 'postcolonial' here to mark a period commencing from British colonization of the country.

Bond's early memories are those of quarrels between his parents and their ultimate estrangement. As long as his father lived, he received a more or less British upbringing. His father's demise when Ruskin Bond was just ten instilled in the boy a sense of insecurity, leaving him to flitter between an adolescent life in 1940s small town India and an Anglo-Indian milieu. He saw two microcosmic versions of the latter: one of his mother and stepfather, and the other of a caring maternal grandmother and her tenant, the elderly Mrs Kellner. With his fair skin and blue eyes he was placed on the British side of the long colour scale that categorized the Anglo-Indians. Allied to this was his sensitivity to the suffering of his father, who died serving the Raj as a pilot officer in the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The British presence in India gave birth to the Anglo-Indian community and indirectly fashioned its lifestyle. Bond's parents came together in the course of a nightclub bash in a Mussoorie ghetto, but his mother's hedonistic dissipations later in life drove a wedge between the parents and sent shock waves through Bond's mind, from which he never recovered: 'That early feeling of insecurity was never to leave me, and in adult life, when I witnessed quarrels between people who were close to me, I was always deeply disturbed – more for the children, whose lives were bound to be affected by such emotional discord.' (Memoir, 3) Reminiscing over his mother's self-centeredness that prevented her from caring for the child's emotional needs, Bond mourns as late in 1993 that 'My mother's sensuality was, I think, stronger than her intelligence' (Rain in the Mountains, 245). In my reading of A Flight of Pigeons, in Chapter 5, I have shown how a historical character like Mrs. Labadoor, in a fictional recreation, is invested with the traits of an ideal mother, the absence of which Bond resented in his own mother. During a meeting with the author in October 1997, Ruskin Bond told me that his parents separated due to their diverse lifestyles. Edith continued to be prodigal and a habitual binge drinker, to which Aubrey objected. This emotional trauma, thinks our author, was compounded by the colonial overwork (evidence of which I have supplied in the analytical context of 'Wilson's Bridge' in Chapter 8) of the sultry Indian plains to take a heavy toll on his father's health. After repeated bouts of jaundice, he died of cerebral malaria in Calcutta.

Ruskin Bond passed the most impressionable days of his childhood and youth trying to come to terms with the ironic nature of his position. His attachment to his father makes him abhor the painful other, as well as conscious of the fatal desire of the self to dominate the other. This split is further problematized by young Bond's residual Oedipality. His mother's depravity was the cause of separation from her husband. When she chose to live with another man (Mr Hari, Ruskin Bond's stepfather, was a Punjabi businessman), Bond, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, unconsciously saw himself in the role of his father, repudiated and transplanted in the sexual game. In their attempt to negotiate with a heterogeneous situation constituted of a 'deviant' culture and failing to come to terms with the empirical contingencies of colonial (over) work, which in reality contravened the 'core doctrine' (Kedourie, 2) of Western nationalism/rationalism, the Britons in India were psychologically lost to the professed values of 'high culture'. Bond ascribed his mother's degeneration to the effect of colonialism and considers it to be another cause of his father's suffering. He began to dislike the idea of colonialism and the doctrine on which it was founded. This is how desire for and abhorrence of the other endangered his self in a state of 'dis-ease'. According to Partha Chatterjee, this psychological state of ambivalence also characterized nationalist thought in India with, of course, a reversal of perspective on the status of the self and other. Ruskin Bond, as a representative of his community, 'the alien intruder and dominator' (Chatterjee, 2), was rejected as the other while the culture of the other was adopted as a model for progress. The psychological dilemma that Bond faced and framed in his works is similar in nature to the Indian Nationalist thought. Another problematizing factor was that the politics of marginalization worked drastically against the Anglo-Indian and Domiciled European community in the wake of the Indian Freedom Movement. In 1947, there were job reservations in the community, which acted as disincentive for its young people to aspire to higher education and the removal of these reservations after Independence jeopardized their position. Jettisoned both by the mainstream British bandwagon and the Indian Nationalist clique, the Anglo-Indians turned into virtual flotsam of the Empire.

I have used the word 'Anglo-Indian' to refer to both those of mixed race (British and Indian) and the British residents of India, otherwise of pure descent, who yielded to the cross-cultural influences of the colonized and the colonizer. Edith Dorothy's family had lived in India for a few generations. What Bond communicated to me in many a tete-a-tete I had with him evinces that whilst his knowledge of his mother's ancestry is poor, he believes to have inherited from her a racial hybridity. Meena G. Khorana, who refers to Ruskin Bond as an Anglo-Indian in the original sense of the term 'to mean the British in India, and not its later official definition to describe people of mixed Indian and British descent' (Life and Works, 21), traces his mother's lineage to four generations of British residence in India. Bond's maternal grandfather, William Dudley Clerke, was born to Charles and Louisa Clerke in a place that now forms part of Pakistan. William married Ellen Catherine Sims (his second wife) in 1902 and their daughters, Emily Alice, Gwyneth 'Gwen' Helena, and Edith Dorothy (the author's mother) were all born in undivided (pre-Partition) India. Somewhere down the line, perhaps in the ancestries of Charles and Louisa Clerke and/or among the forbearers of Ellen Sims, a racial mixture could have taken place, the notion of which led Bond to call his mother's eldest sister, Emily, an 'Anglo-Indian'. In the autobiographical account of his experience of staying in his uncle's ( Emily's husband) house in Jersey, he refers to the diary entries 'in which I [ Ruskin Bond ] had expressed my resentment over the very colonial attitudes that still prevailed in my uncle's family. He was a South Indian Christian, my aunt an Anglo-Indian, and yet they were champions of Empire!' (Memoir, 142) Earlier in the text, Bond appears to make slight distinction between the British in India and the Anglo-Indians: 'The exodus of British and Anglo-Indian families was beginning even as the War ended. For some the choice was a hard one. They had no prospects in England, no relatives there. And they had no prospects in India unless they were very qualified. For many Anglo-Indians and "poor whites", assisted passages to England were the order of the day.' (Memoir, 45–46) It is obvious that he tries to classify 'poor whites' and 'British' as separate denominations in relation to the 'Anglo-Indians'. So when he calls Emily an 'Anglo-Indian', out of resentment against racial discrimination, he employs the term not only in the sense of cultural hybridity but to mean racial mixture as well. However, the same account in which he categorizes his aunt and, by implication, his mother as an 'Anglo-Indian' in a racial sense, he says 'I suppose I qualified as a "poor white"' (Memoir 46) and includes the impecunious Mrs Deeds and her son in the same category. He then goes on to elaborate the Deeds' condition in terms that echo the festering rancor of Anglo-Indians of mixed blood who had been economically, culturally, and politically betrayed by the British since the latter's interests in India changed from commercial to imperial: 'They were the flotsam of Empire, jettisoned by the very people who had brought them into existence.' (Memoir, 47) The discursive similarity between Bond's framing of the Deeds' situation and Frank Anthony's rhetoric as he traces the history of the racially mixed Anglo-Indians' fate in the country is conspicuous: 'Brought into existence deliberately by the British, used throughout British Indian history to serve and often to save British imperial interests, treated for the most part in a churlish manner, this comparatively microscopic Community, which has forged a not negligible, and in many respects, a notable history, was cynically betrayed by Britain before its withdrawal from India' (Betrayal, ii). Bond's conjuration of the imagery of the 'jetissoned flotsam' is also markedly similar to the figurative language that Stephen Alter puts in the mouth of Theodore Augden, the 'half-caste' Anglo-Indian narrator of Neglected Lives, to reflect on the community's travails at the end of the 1940s: 'During the war there was a whirlpool in Europe which sucked us all into its madness. Then it spat us out like driftwood, twisted pieces of men.' [my Italics] (Neglected Lives, 47) It seems problematic for Bond to try to make an objective differentiation between the Anglo-Indians and the Domiciled Europeans. A couple of reasons can be cited for this kind of confusion. The inclusivist definition of the term 'Anglo-Indian', as framed by the Government of India Act of 1935, labeled 'all persons of European descent in the male line whether of mixed or allegedly of unmixed blood' (Anthony, 4) as belonging to this category. The urge to forge an officially homogenized concept of the Anglo-Indian stems from a more or less pragmatic sociology of comparable bearings most of the European descendants in India at that point of time shared among each other. Codified ethnicity and its sociological verity worked in tandem to obfuscate Bond's clear vision of the difference between Anglo-Indians of purely British blood and Anglos of mixed descent.

In the 'Introduction' to The Flight of Pigeons (1980), a novel based on the historical findings of the persecution of an Anglo-Indian girl by the mutinous Indian sepoys during the uprising in 1857, Bond underlines the similarity between his position and that of the '14-year-old girl [ Ruth Labadoor] of mixed blood, who was caught up in the holocaust'. Speaking about what had inspired him to write the book, Bond says 'The events described here took place in Shahjahanpur, a small district town in Uttar Pradesh. I felt drawn to Shahjahanpur because it was my father's birthplace, and because my own family background was similar to that of Ruth Labadoor.' ('Introduction', Flight of Pigeons) Ruth's father was killed by the marauding sepoys and she and her mother felt the threat of persecution. Her father's life was sacrificed for the Raj, a symbol loaded with significance for Bond, whose father also died for the Raj in the oppressive conditions of his work. Bond's imagined identification with Ruth's position is supplemented with the sense of alienation that he suffered on a couple of occasions during his childhood when he had to confront nationalist ire in the form of invectives followed by physical assault. The sacrifice and loyalty that the Anglo-Indian community displayed during the 1857 Mutiny helped them to temporarily win the favour of the Raj. Viceroy Lord Canning helped Dr George Cotton, the metropolitan Bishop in India set up schools for this community in line with the public school system of England. Ruskin Bond's father could afford to send his son to Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, but after Aubrey's death the son's education was subsidized by the government's grants-in-aid policy for some time. Eventually, he gave up formal education like many indigent Anglo-Indian children in India. Whether Ruskin Bond actually has any Indian strain in his blood or not, he imagines himself an Anglo-Indian in both the senses of the term.

Bond's use of the term 'Anglo-Indian' in a racial sense to describe his aunt Emily could also have been motivated by his resentment at the duplicity practiced by Anglo-Indians in an attempt to repudiate their Indian link. A desperate wish to demonstrate a purity of belonging to the mythical construct of a superior race engendered the psychic patterns of many Anglo-Indians during decolonization. Frank Anthony points out that the British offered indirect support to this tendency by exploiting the psychologically volatile racial sensibility of the Anglo-Indians. White Anglo-Indians – even if they had mixed blood in them – and those of colour were often given differential treatment: the former were inducted into respectable posts in the government reserved for pure Europeans while the latter were deprived of such privileges. In order to seek a clarification for the anomalous position of the Anglo-Indians, Henry Gidney, who headed the Anglo-Indian Association prior to Frank Anthony, led a deputation to Lord Birkenhead, Secretary of State for India, in London in 1925. One of the members of the deputation explained: 'If you have two brothers employed on the railway, sometimes the fair one will be employed as a European and the darker one as a Statutory Native of India, and the latter will not get the same privileges as the former.' (quoted in Blunt, 43–44) Colour acted as a decisive index for secret discriminations that British snobbery of racial purity discreetly employed. Bond's critical attitude to such chicanery lends a postcolonial dimension to his identity-seeking concerns. His sympathetic notion of the Anglo-Indian is inclusivist enough to project his sensibilities on the white boy, Rusty in The Room on the Roof, who is grudgingly guarded against the influences of Indianization by his British guardian, John Harrison. When Rusty comes to know that he is half-caste, he finds psychological support for his prevalent inclination towards Indian life and culture. Harrison's indignant tirade against the boy, calling him a half-caste 'mongrel' in desperate rage over his own failure to circumscribe the boy's identity in a 'superior' racial bracket, is a self-reflexive critique of the British practice and the Anglo-Indian myth.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Introduction: Reading ‘Self’ in a Semi-Autobiographical Author; Sense of Exile: An Anglo-Indian Context; Text versus Context: Space and Time in ‘The Room on the Roof’ and ‘Vagrants in the Valley’; Quest for an Authentic Literary Grain: Two Versions of ‘The Eyes are not Here’; Conscious/Unconscious Dialectic: Stories of the Mid-Career; Invoking History to Resist Drives: Tension Revisited in ‘A Flight of Pigeons’; Self in Abject Space: ‘The Playing Fields of Shimla’; Conclusion: Self in Liminal Space; References; Index

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'Debashis Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Locating the Anglo-Indian Self in Ruskin Bond’ is an engaging study of an Anglo-Indian writer attempting to establish his identity in the immediate aftermath of Indian emancipation. Bandyopadhay employs judicious biography in service to a sophisticated but accessible psychoanalytic model of ego formation to produce exemplary readings of Bond’s texts.' —Edward O’Shea, Professor of English, The State University of New York at Oswego

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